So where were we when we left off?
Ah, yes, the Braves had been swept in four games at Coors Field to go into the All-Star break lugging a five-game losing streak that matched their season high. Misery, agony, deep dark depression in Braves Country. At least among those who make an awful lot out of one series or even one game, rather than the bigger picture.
And now we start the figurative second half – not actual second half, since Braves have already played 89 games and have 72 to go – with a team that went from three games out of first place after winning the first two games at Milwaukee to start the last road trip, to seven games behind the NL East-leading Nationals, five games behind the second-place Mets, and six games out of the second wild-card spot.
So, what now?
Here’s what: The Braves (42-47) will look to regroup, shrug off the naysayers, and keep trying to win as many games as they can, beginning Friday night with the opener of a three-game series against the Cubs (47-40), who are in third place in the difficult NL Central, further from first place (eight games) than are the Braves, but currently holding down the second wild-card spot. If the postseason started today, the Central would have three of the five NL playoff teams, with St. Louis winning the division and Central rivals Pittsburgh and Chicago squaring off in the wild-card game.
But back to the Braves. Buyers or sellers? We’ve fielded that question and heard speculation about that subject now for weeks on end. And to tell you the truth, I really believe that a lot more ink and words have been spent answering the question or opining on the subject than it’s worth. By that I mean, when July 31 rolls around, I think a lot of people are going to be surprised that the Braves are neither big buyers or sellers.
I think they would’ve traded Jason Grilli before the break if he hadn’t suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles last week. And I think they still are more than likely to trade setup-man-turned-closer Jim Johnson and third baseman Juan Uribe before the break, since both are in the final three months of their contracts and will be free agents after the season.
But I don’t know that, as of July 17, there are any other certainties to be traded in the next two weeks. And I say that because as much as a contender or two would surely like to have 38-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzysnki, and several teams are likely to make offers for center fielder Cameron Maybin, the Braves might decide to keep them for the rest of the season. They might determine that the positive effect Pierzysnki’s had – and continues to have -- on the team and particularly its many young pitchers makes it worth keeping him around for the rest of the season.
And they might – repeat, might – decide they’d rather keep Maybin, who’s having a career-best season and is signed through next year with an option for 2017, at least until the offseason, when they could have a bigger market for him and/or better determine what else they’ve got and whether it makes much sense to bring him back in 2016, when they might be a lot better than some had predicted just a few months ago.
The fact that the Braves just signed veteran reliever Jason Frasor on Thursday, a few days after he was released by the Royals – that DFA two weeks ago surprised many, given his 1.54 ERA this season and success in the Royals’ 2014 playoff drive – should signal to people that the Braves aren’t waving the white flag on this season and just using the rest of it as a tryout and evaluation period for young players.
For one thing, to simply thrust young players onto the major league stage, as I’ve heard some suggest, would be potentially damaging to the development of some of them, if they’re not ready. The Braves aren’t going to bring up a half-dozen prospects now, just because they’re falling further back in the division race and plenty of fans – and some media members – think it’s best to see what all the young guys have got, to gauge them for the future. No. They bring them up when the Braves believe they are ready to be brought up, when they think they are developed enough to show what they’re capable of on the big stage, not when they think they might or might not be ready but the team is falling in the standings so what the hell.
Not only is that not good development strategy – believe me, I covered an 108-loss Marlins team that shoved several talented young players onto the major league stage before they were ready, and nothing good came from it – but it also isn’t good for the mentality of the collective group, to get into a losing mentality and get comfortable with losing 45 of the last 60 games or whatever. Not good at all.
And finally, the Braves have stated all along, since last winter, that they were making moves designed to rebuild the farm system and put the organization on good footing for the future, i.e. for the move into the new ballpark in 2017, but while also remaining respectable or even competitive in the interim. Trading off everything of value, playing a bunch of young kids who might but probably aren’t ready, and losing four out of five games the rest of the season is no way to back that statement or keep a fickle fan base interested through September or, perhaps more importantly, persuade those who are on the fence about those more-expensive season tickets in the new ballpark in 2017.
I mean, trading off Maybin, who’s been one of the bright spots this season and has quickly become a fan favotire -- and again, is under contract through ’16 with an option for ’17 -- right now to get another prospect might not be the best way to convince people you’re serious about winning and that, trust us, it’ll make us better in the future, so buy those ’16 and ’17 season tickets.
This says a lot about the nature of this season: Frasor will be the 50th player used by the Braves this season, most in the majors in 2015 and matching the franchise record set in 2007, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Before and after Freeman injury: In case you missed it in our Jeff Schultz’s excellent Q&A with John Hart this week, Freddie Freeman’s wrist injury continues to be slow-healing, and the Braves aren’t sure that he’ll be back by the first of August.
They don’t think it’s a season-ending situation, but just might go into August now. Initially they had hoped he’d be back after the All-Star break.
How much effect does Freeman’s absence have on the offense? Well, just consider these numbers: In their last 18 games with Freeman in the lineup, the Braves hit .296 and scored 96 runs, or 5.33 runs per game. In the 17 games since he left the lineup, they’ve hit .244 and scored 64 runs, or 2.78 runs per game.
In Andrelton Simmons’ past 19 games, the shortstop has hit .154 (10-for-65) with no extra-base hits, two runs and ONE RBI, for a .214 OBP and .154 slugging percentage.
In Kelly Johnson’s 30 games since returning from DL, the versatile veteran has hit .289 (26-for-90) with three homers, 15 RBIs.
• Facing the Cubs: This a new era for the Cubs and manager Joe Maddon, obviously. But it’s still worth noting, the Braves are 11-2 with a 3.16 ERA in their past 13 games against the Cubs, including 7-0 at Turner Field.
Atlanta totaled 72 runs and 20 homers in that 13-game span, which began with a four-homer game for the Braves at Turner Field on July 5, 2012. The other 12 games in that 13-game run were in 2013 and 2014, including a pair of three-game sweeps at Turner Field.
Then again, the Braves had won 22 of 29 against the Rockies before losing all four at Coors Field before the break.
The Cubs wasted a lot of good pitching in the last three weeks before the break (and spent a whole lot more money than the Braves while doing so).
The Cubs were 8-10 despite a 2.83 ERA in their last 18 games before the break. That can happen when you hit .219 and total just 46 runs and six homers over an 18-game stretch, like the Cubs did.
• Series-opener matchup: It’s home beast Julio Teheran against Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks in Friday’s series opener.
Teheran is 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA and .196 opponents’ average in his past four starts, with only 19 hits and nine walks allowed in 27 innings. Nine of the hits and six of the nine runs he allowed in that span came in a June 27 loss at Pittsburgh.
As has been well-chronicled, Teheran has been an entirely different pitcher at home than on the road this season. He is 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA and three homers allowed in eight home starts, compared to 1-4 with a 6.95 ERA and 13 homers allowed in 10 road starts. He’s allowed a .187 opponents’ average, .260 OBP and .264 slugging percentage at home, compared to .333/.402/.582 on road. Astounding.
Teheran is 4-0 with a 1.74 ERA, .159 opponents’ average and one homer allowed in his past six home starts, including 2-0 with eight hits and no earned runs allowed in his past two home starts.
Against the Cubs, Teheran is 2-0 with a 3.81 ERA and .208 opponents’ average in four starts, in 2013 and two in 2014. Against Teheran, Chris Coghlan is 2-for-6 with a homer and two walks, Dexter Fowler is 2-for-4, Starlin Castro is 1-fof-11, Anthony Rizzo is 2-for-12, and Miguel Montero is 0-for-8.
Hendricks was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and .188 opponents’ average in his last three starts before the All-Star break, with 16 strikeouts and two walks in 20 1/3 innings. That included wins against the Mets (in New York) and Marlins and no decision against the White Sox in his last start July 10.
He’s 3-2 with a 4.24 ERA in nine road starts, compared to 1-2 with a 2.81 ERA in nine starts at Wrigley Field.
Hendricks hasn’t faced the Braves, and Pierzysnki (1-for-2) and Nick Markakis (0-for-2) are the only Braves who’ve faced him.
Let's close with this title cut off Jason Isbell's terrific new album, Something More Than Free, which was released today.
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